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CLIMATE CHANGE: Small Islands Fear Going the Way of Atlantis

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 17 2009 (IPS) - The world’s small island states, most of which are painfully vulnerable to the ravages of climate change, have put the United Nations on notice.

Dramatising the plight of Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS), Ambassador Stuart Beck of Palau warns that the 192-nation world body, which progressively kept growing from its original membership of 51 in 1945, is in danger of shrinking because some of its members may be wiped off the face of the earth.

“This chilling conclusion means that for the first time in the history of the world, we are contemplating the loss of states,” he told the General Assembly Monday.

Up to now, he said, the membership of this body has only grown with time. “How will we feel when that trend is reversed?” he asked.

Against the backdrop of a major international conference on climate change in Copenhagen next month, the world’s small island states are warning that the devastating impact of global warming is a violation of their basic human rights – and poses an existential threat to their very existence.

The countries most vulnerable to the hazards of climate change include the Maldives, Timor Leste and the Pacific Small Island Developing States of Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

The international community, Beck said, must also address itself to current realities with the mechanisms available to it.

“We submit that only the Security Council has the extraordinary powers to deal with threats like this. No, we do not expect the Council to turn back the rising seas,” he said.

“But rather, we challenge the Council to creatively use its powers under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter to develop enforceable emissions targets, and to give teeth to what is now an ineffectual voluntary process,” Beck declared.

There is concern among most of the small island states that the link between climate change and human rights will be marginalised at the climate change conference scheduled to take place in Copenhagen Dec. 7-18.

The conference in the Danish capital was expected to discuss, and perhaps finalise, a global treaty to curb global warming.

But world leaders meeting at a summit in Singapore last week decided to focus only on a “politically binding” agreement in Copenhagen and shelve the legally binding treaty, perhaps for a future summit next year in Mexico City.

Dr. Parvez Hassan, a former chair of the Commission on Environmental Law at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), told IPS the issues of human rights and the environment are inextricably woven together, as demonstrated time and again.

Climate change, he pointed out, will bring about, among others, sea level rises, changes in crop patterns, droughts, mass migrations and food insecurity.

These issues, he said, impact on the cardinal principles of human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the two International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Culture Rights (1966).

“The result inescapably will be felt more in the vulnerable countries,” said Hassan, president of the Pakistan Environmental Law Association.

“But in the inter-dependent world that we live in, it will affect the future of humanity as a whole. Copenhagen cannot and should not disregard this imperative,” he added.

Asked about the link between human rights and climate change, Andrew E. Miller, environmental and human rights campaigner at the Washington-based Amazon Watch, told IPS that on one level, climate change itself will create unprecedented human rights impacts.

Drought, rising sea levels, flooding, and increased food insecurity are predicted to negatively affect hundreds of millions of people across the globe, he pointed out.

Indigenous peoples, intimately inter-connected with their environment, are already sensing environmental changes.

“Even if indigenous peoples don’t completely understand the science, they understand perfectly that modern civilisation is living out of balance with nature, the consequences of which we are now reaping,” said Miller.

The precarious situation of the Amazon rainforest can be viewed as a bell-weather for the survival of Earth’s ecosystem as a whole.

Industrial-scale human activities, leading to deforestation, are conspiring with climate change symptoms like drought to point the Amazon toward the nightmare “die-back” scenario.

“The implications of the Amazon passing the ecological tipping point would be disastrous for the people who live there, and for the rest of humanity,” Miller added.

In May, an international conference on human rights and the environment held in Iran adopted a Tehran declaration.

The declaration, among other things, called on the Copenhagen conference to ensure that “appropriate measures are taken and requisite financing is provided for mitigation and adaptation to address the impacts that climate change has on the full realization of human rights and the well being of people.”

The conference also asked Iran, in partnership with other states in the region, to develop a regional strategy on environmental sustainability, which includes all environmental, economic, cultural and social dimensions of sustainability within a South-South framework and through the sharing of national experience.

Professor Nicholas Robinson, who teaches law at Pace University, points out that the Maldives has been especially active in asserting the human rights of their citizens before international bodies.

At the request of the Maldives, he said, the U.N. Human Rights Council asked the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to advise on how international law on human rights should be considered by states and organisations addressing climate change impacts on individuals.

Miller of Amazon Watch told IPS that a second danger is the possibility that nascent measures to mitigate climate change, such as the U.N. Programme for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD), may also contribute to human rights violations.

Large-scale conservation schemes have long been at odds with the rights of local populations, for example restricting their subsistence activities.

“Imagine a rights-deaf conservation model on steroids, with the introduction of a multi-billion-dollar global carbon market reducing indigenous territories into tradable commodities,” he said.

Miller said many indigenous leaders fear this model will directly conflict with their drive to expand legal titling of indigenous ancestral territories, amongst other attacks on their collective rights.

“As tropical governments impose sweeping climate change schemes on forest dwellers, we also see a potential for increasing social tensions, indigenous protests, and government repression,” he noted.

Miller said recent conflicts in Peru and Ecuador over policies dictating corporate access to natural resources on indigenous territories are just the most recent cautionary tales.

Governments in the Andean-Amazonian region have moved to increasingly criminalise social protests of economic policies, a trend that could be exacerbated by the imperative to impose climate change mitigation measures without the consent of local populations.

Imposition of a conservation scheme might seem preferable to an oil concession, but the ultimate question for indigenous peoples is who decides what happens on their ancestral lands.

Every scheme cooked up elsewhere, whether for profit or climate protection, is an affront to indigenous peoples’ self-determination.

At the end of the day, he said, well-meaning plans to conserve indigenous territories run the risk of failing unless they are designed with full indigenous consent and respect for their rights.

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